Every year, the Carey Institute for Global Good in rural Albany County hosts journalists from around the globe through its Logan Nonfiction Program. Its latest residencies wrapped just as the coronavirus pandemic took hold, with fellows researching subjects ranging from the U.S. prison system to World War II. WAMC’s Jesse King stopped by the campus in Rensselaerville, New York to speak with reporter Rachel Riederer.
The desk in Riederer’s bright blue room at the Carey Institute is stacked with books on climate change. A longtime reporter on the subject herself, Riederer’s written a number of essays for The New Yorker, The New Republic, The Nation, and more. But after years of sifting through bleak reports on the state of the environment, she says the topic became overwhelming.
“I couldn’t read the news about it anymore. And so I made this resolution in 2019 just to not look away from climate news — and it was really hard!" she smiles. "This book came out by David Wallace Wells, called ‘The Uninhabitable Earth’ that’s this like, very harrowing book about what’s going to happen as the climate crisis continues — and I just found it really useful, really important, and also incredibly hard to read. And then I was like, ‘There are people who must be doing a better job of this than I am.’”
In her time at the Carey Institute, Riederer has been exploring the psychological impacts of climate change, and the various ways many have come to terms with what she calls “climate anxiety.” She notes any stress or fear over the future is understandable: in 2018, a United Nations panel determined international efforts to reduce greenhouse gases were not enough, and the world would have to achieve net zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2050 in order to limit global warming and avoid a catastrophic rise in sea levels. At any rate, she says the world will look very different within the next century, unless we significantly change the way we live now.
But in order to respond to the crisis at hand, Riederer says people need to first accept that it exists — and the best way to start doing that is to talk about it.
“Have conversations among your family and friends that are not about like, ‘Do you believe in climate change?’ or ‘[Who] is the right candidate to solve climate change?’ but that are just about like, ‘What are you worried about? What are the parts of it that you have a hard time understanding, or the parts that are keeping you up at night?’ she poses. "And to just, first of all, start talking about it as you would talk about like, what happened in your day at work — to just make it a part of your personal life, and not just a part of your political life.”
Riederer says more therapists are focusing on climate anxiety with their patients. After talking about it, Riederer has seen people go on to confront climate change in a range of ways, whether that means watching their own carbon footprint and energy consumption, advocating for environmental regulations, or — like Reiderer — simply doing research to better understand the crisis. She lists "doomsday prepping" as a more extreme response, but says it's not necessarily uncommon. In her research, Riederer has interviewed a number of people assembling bunkers and stockpiles to take care of their families.
“I have a lot of empathy for that impulse, and that strikes me as a very natural thing to want to do. But also a lot of people who I’ve talked to are saying like, ‘OK, so you and your family are going to survive for whatever, a couple of years into the climate collapse — but what do you survive into?’ If you’re only focusing on your own personal safety that’s a really limited thing," Riederer explains. "There are other people who are forming these intentional communities that are a little bit broader. So they’re creating whole neighborhoods that operate on passive solar power and have a community garden...And these are the kinds of things where it’s like — you have a little bit of a bigger scope of who you're looking out for. They do more than scratch the itch of worrying about your personal safety, and they actually follow a model that could be more sustainable on a larger scale.”
Riederer plans to write a book profiling the different approaches she’s encountered. It’s still in its early form, with a lot of her time in Rensselaerville spent drafting proposals for publishers. But she hopes to take climate change out of the political arena — if only for a moment — so readers can explore it on a more personal level.
"It’s really normal and natural to have a response to the climate crisis that is complicated and emotional," says Riederer. "The scope of [climate change] is enormous, and so it’s really okay to freak out about that — but the freak out should be the beginning of your response, and not the end.”
This piece is part of a series on the Carey Institute's Logan Nonfiction Program, which has supported over 150 journalists since it began in 2015. You can read more on the latest fellows below.